Monday, January 13, 2003
Adam Garfinkle makes the best case I've read yet for pulling out of Korea. It's an elaboration of an argument he made before in the pages of The New Republic, and which I blogged and critiqued here. It seems to me that Garfinkle has moved in a more unilateralist direction since October. In October, he talked about a grand conference to use carrots and sticks to get North Korea to assent to their own slow demise. Now he talks about threatening to pull out unilaterally to, effectively, force China to deal with the problem it is in the best position of all the major powers to correct.
Let's put baldly the problem with this strategy: Garfinkle is ready to trust China to provide for the security of Japan and South Korea. If we pull out of South Korea, he says, the South Koreans will have to defend themselves, and if North Korea continues down the path of nuclearization then both Japan and South Korea will go nuclear, which is very negative from China's perspective. Since the Chinese don't want that to happen, they will try to convince us to stay in the penninsula, and to do what is necessary to bring North Korea to heel, and ultimately to unwind the existence of that state. But what if China calls our bluff? Then Japan and South Korea will know 3 things: (1) America has cut and run, to protect its own soldiers and because South Korea just isn't that important to our interests; (2) for Japan or South Korea to go nuclear will dramatically raise tensions between them and China, now the dominant power in East Asia; (3) China is in the strongest position to ensure their security by virtue of their leverage over North Korea. So why wouldn't an American pullout from South Korea lead rapidly to the Finlandization of Japan and South Korea, and a significant augmentation of Chinese power in the area? And why wouldn't it therefore have very dangerous implications for Taiwan?
The unspoken assumption of Garfinkle's is that China is a conservative Great Power eager to cooperate with other Great Powers to promote stability, even as it jockeys for advantage at the margins. But what if China is not a conservative power but a more radical power, bent on changing the entire power structure of East Asia? What if their long-term ambition is not simply to preserve and enhance their own relative power and security but to throw the U.S. out of their self-defined sphere of influence and become a regional hegemon? In the latter case, China would have a very strong incentive to applaud the departure of the Americans and take advantage of their stronger position. Since that is precisely what the Chinese are saying is their long-term objective, we can't blithely assume that their real intentions are more conservative.
(Incidentally, he assumes that we can prevent North Korea from promoting the nuclearization of the rest of the Axis of Evil without aggressive American action against the country, something I highly doubt.)
We do not have any good options on Korea. That doesn't mean that simply waiting and doing nothing in particular is the best option, nor that pulling out is the best option. We need to simultaneously create an international consensus to denuclearize the penninsula, backed by a credible threat of force; strengthen our relationship with South Korea (which certainly does mean renegotiating the Status of Forces agreement and lowering the American profile in country); manage the progressive re-armament of Japan (without which our position in the region is less-tenable, and which may happen without our management if we neglect our relationship with Japan); and both cooperate with and contain the ambitions of China. That is a very delicate balancing act. It's going to require a lot of sustained attention, sophisticated diplomacy, and hard-nosed willingness to use force if necessary. I don't see this Administration manifesting that combination at this time. That's understandable, since immediate threats to America are coming from West Asia and Central Asia, not from East Asia. But they say that every war sows the seeds for the next one. The War on Terrorism may be sowing the seeds of the Sino-American War, and the first evidence is what's happening in Korea.